FOREST HILLS — Students at Morning Star Catholic School left their collared shirts and plaid skirts at home.
Instead they wore T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes Tuesday, ready to spend the day getting dirty at the school's new Unity Garden.
The students spread mulch and planted tomatoes and marigolds.
Theirs is one in a growing number of gardens sprouting up at local schools where educators hope to teach students a variety of lessons, from environmental benefits to helping feed people in need. Dunbar Elementary in Tampa, Learning Gate Community School in Lutz and Dowdell Middle in east Hillsborough are examples of other schools that launched similar projects in recent years.
"We, the students, promise to be good stewards of this gift," Morning Star's student council president Preston Clemmons told the crowd at the garden's official unveiling.
Morning Star is a special-needs school serving 73 students ages 6 to 16. It serves students with a range of learning disabilities and challenges, including Asperger's syndrome, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
Come harvest time, students will donate their ripened vegetables to the Most Holy Redeemer Food Pantry next door to the school. Each class has a designated space in the garden and selected which vegetables to grow, such as tomatoes, beans and radishes.
Unity Garden is the brainchild of Judy Gray, a board member at the school. Noting how the students responded when she read books about nature or spoke about the environment, she decided to expand an existing but aging butterfly garden in the courtyard.
Gray, who is also a member of the Tampa Bay Beautification board, eventually solicited the help of Scotts Miracle-Gro, a company that specializes in lawn care and gardening products.
Scotts donated mulch, soil and money, making the Tampa school one of seven showcase gardens worldwide and the first to be unveiled. Tuesday's event was used to kick off Scotts' initiative to create 1,000 gardens and green spaces worldwide by 2018.
Other businesses and community organizations donated money, supplies and time.
During the unveiling, Andrew Elwin, a 13-year-old student from Lutz, received the Youth Gardener Award. He was selected because of his interest in ecology, his leadership through the Boy Scouts and Student Council, and for the green thumb he has showcased with his grandparents' flower garden.
His favorite part of the garden is the herb area, where students will be able to use all of their senses to explore and learn.
"Something that's a leaf, you can put in your mouth and it tastes really good," Andrew said.
Morning Star principal Eileen Daly said the garden allows the school to bring the classroom outdoors and make science lessons come alive for students.
"They need to have hands-on experiences, real-life experiences," she said. "You need to open up all pathways to the senses in order for them to understand concepts."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.